True guarantees are not that easy to find in diving. But with near certainty, Iíll guarantee that a diver, no matter how experienced a traveler, photographer or underwater naturalist, will find marine creatures he has never seen before when diving St. Vincent.
A crazy quilt of sponges blankets the boulders, slopes and walls of St. Vincentís underwater world in brilliant hues of red, yellow, violet, orange, blue, gold, purple and green. Sponges account for much of the color in Caribbean waters, and nowhere else are they more abundant or more diverse and colorful than here. As a beginning diver and photographer, I did not fully appreciate this variety or the creatures that take advantage of the camouflage and protection provided by the sponges. I had not yet discovered the hidden life that is so dense there. The more I traveled to Indo/Pacific destinations, the more I learned and the better I became at spotting this hidden life. Soon, I was spotting red frogfish perched on fields of encrusting sponge, Reef Scorpionfish heading down on the sides of Azure Vase Sponges and orange or yellow seahorses turning their backs to our lenses while anchored by their tails to Red Rope Sponges.
The central disk of a basket star, also at New Guinea Reef.
Poking around on the reef at night I was surprised to find Viper, Goldentail, Spotted and Chestnut Moray Eels peeking out of the top of vase sponges. The vivid orange and yellow basket stars had climbed in the darkness to anchor themselves atop the sponges and unfold lacy arms, carrying tiny red shrimp, to catch plankton carried by the gentle currents. I spotted decorator, sponge and spider crabs as they began to haul their carefully collected sponge dťcor across the reef. Sometimes I surprised them naked and chopping away at a sponge for a new homemade garment. With all this life, there were plenty of chances to photograph marine behavior; squid laying eggs, shrimp cleaning fish, trunkfish puffing the sand away to find a crab and urchins spawning. Itís a fish-eat-fish world down there.
My favorite place for underwater macro photography in the Caribbean (and far superior, in my opinion, to most of the Pacific destinations that Iíve visited), St. Vincent is well-endowed with beautiful colors and sights both under and above the water. Many of the photographers who have joined me there recognize, as I do, that the underwater images created in St. Vincent are especially striking due to the highly saturated colors of the small creatures and their sponge backgrounds. Topside, the colors continue, though mainly in shades of green, accented with the occasional red of flamboyant trees.
Blackbar Soldierfish school in a pocket of the reef.
A Reef Scorpionfish rests on an Azure Vase Sponge.
Outdoor activities and the laid-back atmosphere are the attractions on this island. Trinity Falls, the Falls of Baliene, the oldest Botanical Gardens in the Western Hemisphere, Fort Charlotte, La Soufriere (the volcano), the Vermont Nature Trails (home of wild St. Vincent parrots) are some of the many topside diversions for those who can pass up a dive now and then. Catch the Potential Steel Drum Orchestra A-Team playing at the Calliaqua Culture Pot on a Friday night, and youíre in for a treat. While you are there, try a local style dinner at Noahís Ark, where many Vincentians go for lunch. Conch curry, pilau, roti (a curry burrito) and the jerk chicken are favorites.
Culinary delights aside, perhaps the biggest attraction St. Vincent holds is its wealth of macro life. For years I have been finding weird and unusual sea creatures around the rocks and sand at the edge of Young Island. At that time, I didnít know there was a name for what I was doing. Itís called ďmuck diving,Ē like that found in the twilight zones of Indonesia and PNG. In daylight hours, Spoon-nose Eels and tiny Black-lined Octopus lie buried up to their eyeballs in the sand. Red Heart Urchins and Furry Sea Cucumbers are easy to spot, but it takes a trained eye to find the tiny Pea Crabs hitchhiking underneath the urchins or microscopic Bumblebee Shrimp atop a cucumber.
The vibrant hues of St. Vincent reefs are due in large part to the great diversity of colorful sponges.
Everywhere I looked there were crustaceans. Diving into a muck spot that I began diving only last year, I expected to see the residential, blazing orange Magnificent Sea Urchin, with tiny needle-thin purple shrimp on its long spines, or the Short-nose Batfish from previous dives. I did not find them this time, however, within seconds I spotted a common West Indian Sea Urchin. Squinting through the gauge reader of my mask, I saw it was covered with tiny creatures that I had never seen before! Topside, I immediately thumbed through my Indo-Pacific identification books, a common activity after a St. Vincent dive, and I identified these shrimps as Gnathophylloides mineri, a tiny cigar-shaped shrimp.
Credit for this siteís name goes to Callie Richardson, one of the best divemasters on the island and a long-time friend. Callie had been taking divers here at night to see shells, but had never told anyone that these other marvelous sand-loving creatures were there. Thus, to his chagrin, itís now called ďCallieís Secret.Ē
Eye on SVG
Caribbean Diversity on Parade
St. Vincent is one of 32 islands in the country of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. The differences in the islands and the diving are like night and day. St. Vincent is a very rugged, mountainous island with plenty of rivers and waterfalls, lush vegetation and black sand beaches. The Grenadines are low islands with perfect white sand beaches, palm trees and long stretches of reef surrounded by turquoise water. In St. Vincent, there are many critters and sites where one can poke around for hours. In the Grenadines, many, perhaps most, of the dives are drift dives along long stretches of reef where schooling fish and an occasional shark or turtle are to be expected. Bequia is in the middle, and many of the descriptions found in this article may be applied to diving Bequia.
(Since SVG is so diverse, we chose to cover it in two separate articles. Watch for ďand the GrenadinesĒ in a future Skin Diver.)
Callieís Secret is a site to be discovered, with what seems to be only sand and a shallow fringing reef to explore. Other favorite sites, such as Pinnacle, Orca Point, Anchor Reef, Hans Reef and Harbor South South have a variety of terrain and habitats that can be explored on a single dive. For example, at Anchor Reef there is a deep wall where seahorses congregate in the masses of black coral bushes; a saddle-backed reef top where sponges poke up like weeds through the rocks packed with frogfish, eels and lobster; an overhang where a dense school of soldierfish congregate; and a sand flat where seahorses, Spoon-nose Eels, Sailfin Blennies, tiny octopus, Pistol Shrimp and Flying Gurnard linger.
Harbor South South, usually one of my photo tour groupís favorite night dives, has a vertical wall from zero to 40 feet, a ledge at 40 to 50 feet and then a sponge and coral covered slope. Thick with encrusting sponge and golden tubastrea corals, this wall is the place to find shrimp, crabs, lobster, eels and basket stars, all with a glorious background. Strikingly patterned and rare Red Banded Lobsters, the cover shot for Humannís Reef Creature Identification Guide, live at this site. This lobster and the elusive Bullseye Lobster were the photographic critter goal of my previous two visits. Got íem! Not the ultimate shot of either lobster; but then, there is always the next trip.